Realizing the severity of what he was about to write, Paul anchors any hope in God’s righteousness (vv. 16-17). He knew from experience how the preached Gospel was being received. The Jews saw it as a threat to their way of living as violating the law. Gentiles, i.e., Greeks, ridiculed it as philosophical nonsense. Paul rebuked both by stating basic principles. The gospel was nothing less than the out-working of the power of God much as the magnetic force (in our language) draws objects toward the sun. That salvation, dealing directly to God’s righteousness has always been available by faith, one’s loyal dependence on Christ for salvation. It works from faith to faith wherein one believer’s transformed life encourages others to receive the same benefit. But many dismissed the opportunity to receive the hope of deliverance as so much foolish talk.
Their refusal to follow God’s way brought about a generalized revelation of God’s wrath based on God’s two-fold witness (vv. 18-20). Just as the gospel reveals the power of God, so does rebellion release the wrath of God. Unbelievers have sinned in respect to His internal witness. The evidence for God’s being arises first from His internal witness, the conscience. All people have a sense of right and wrong. Second, God provides an external witness to His existence through His “creation of the world.” Call this the evidence from effect to cause. The universe, the effect, demands a cause, the Supernatural, that is, God.
Therefore, humans are guilty (vv. 21-25). The Bible then describes abominable acts attributed to human choice. At this point we must insert a brief digression, involved in the phrase, “When they knew God” (v. 21). The one time in human history in which the whole of humanity “knew” God is recorded in Genesis 3:1-6:13. After the sin of Adam and Eve, the world succumbed to Satan’s deceptions (3:1) and fell headlong into eventual spiritual corruption as characterized in 6:5. God saw the extent of the depravity and decided to destroy the people and start over. So horrendous was the rebellion that Jesus said life as it was in the days of Noah would precede His return (Matt. 24:37-39). Peter invoked the evils of Norah’s day as an example of God’s judgment (2 Pet. 2:5).
Notice the tense of the verbs describing humanity’s collapse in Romans 1:21-27 are all in the past tense. What has occurred will be recapitulated in the end times. The defining message for the church is implied in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, with the climax in verse 11: “And such were some of you: but ye are washed. But ye are sanctified. But ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our Lord.”
We can now address the fate of those who die in unbelief (2:12). The Bible says that people not knowing the law will be judged by how well they followed the law “written in their hearts” (2:14). Acts 17:30 says God “winked” at those who broke the law before they even knew there was a law. Nevertheless, people of all cultures have a sense of right and wrong and know they do not keep it. The extent of their punishment will be assessed by Jesus, the Judge.
If people could be saved by obeying what “light” they have, but are lost if they hear but refuse to believe, the best evangelistic programs would be to close down all churches, close all Bibles, and recall all missionaries in order that more people could be saved. Otherwise, the good news would become bad news and the Great Commission nullified. Jesus told Nicodemus, that unless a man be born again “he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:36).
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